These days, you don’t need professional photography equipment to take stunning photos. The smartphone in your pocket has the power to capture the kind of high-quality shots you can find in magazines – and it’s extremely easy to use, too!
That said, smartphone photography involves more than grabbing that iPhone or Google Pixel, turning on the camera, and pointing it in the right direction. To take great photos with a smartphone, you’ll need to think about a variety of elements, including composition, lighting, and exposure settings. You’ll also want to consider the capabilities of your specific model and even think about purchasing an accessory or two.
In the following sections, I’ll share everything you need to know to tap into your smartphone’s photography potential. From choosing the right smartphone photo gear to understanding the various Android and iPhone modes and settings, I’ll carefully guide you through the process. I’ll also share with you some simple tips so that you can get started creating awesome, beautiful, and memorable mobile phone photos of your very own.
Now grab your smartphone and get ready to explore the power of photography. No matter your skill level, there’s something here for you. Let’s dive right in!
Key reasons to use a smartphone for photography
If you’re reading this article, you probably already know that smartphones come with some major advantages compared to traditional cameras like DSLRs and mirrorless models. But before we delve into the nitty gritty of smartphone photography, I’d like to emphasize a few particular reasons why a mobile phone can outcompete a professional camera.
First and foremost, the portability and convenience of having a camera at all times are hard to beat. Your smartphone is always with you and is always ready to capture those unexpected moments, whether you’re on a train, a plane, stopped at a light, or in the middle of your lunch break.
Second, the various built-in features and modes offered by smartphones – such as Portrait mode, HDR settings, and Night mode – can enhance the average beginner’s images above and beyond the shots they can take with, say, a DSLR. Yes, an experienced photographer with an expensive camera could create similar effects with a careful approach and equally careful editing, but it takes time and a lot of effort to get to that point.
Third, a smartphone allows you to capture, edit, and share photos all in one place; in other words, it’s a one-stop shop for photography. Imagine being on a trip, capturing a breathtaking sunset, editing the image, and sharing it with friends and family on Facebook – all in the span of about 10 minutes. This type of ultra-integrated shooting certainly isn’t possible on a DSLR and is one of the unique benefits of smartphone photography.
Finally, the cost-effectiveness of smartphones compared to professional camera gear is also a significant advantage. Non-smartphone photography can be an expensive hobby, especially when you factor in lenses, tripods, and other accessories. However, most folks already own a smartphone that takes solid photos – and even if you’re looking to upgrade so you can achieve the best possible shots, it still won’t cost you an arm and a leg.
How to pick a smartphone for photography
You can capture great photos with pretty much any smartphone. But if you’re looking to capture ultra-clean images and gain access to cool features, you might want to consider an Android or iPhone device with photo-centric capabilities.
Here are a few key factors to consider when choosing the best smartphone camera:
Not all smartphone cameras produce equally high-quality photos. Resolution is one factor to consider here; more megapixels are often better, especially if you want to be able to crop your shots without dramatically degrading the quality.
You should also look for a larger sensor, which will – all else being equal – allow you to get sharper, more natural images when photographing in darker areas. Image stabilization can also come in handy, especially if you often end up with blurry photos in low-light situations.
Focal length flexibility
Many smartphones offer more than one camera. In addition to the ubiquitous standard camera, you might find a phone with a wide-angle and a telephoto camera, or even an ultra-wide or an ultra-telephoto camera. Wider cameras are perfect for landscapes, while telephoto cameras are ideal if you want to photograph tight portraits and distant subjects.
As you consider different options, think about the camera type(s) that best suit your interests. More cameras usually mean more flexibility, but make sure to look at the specs of each one. The image quality can often vary from one camera to the next, meaning that a 48 MP standard camera does not guarantee 48 MP telephoto images.
Additional features and modes
Think about additional features that might help you with your photography. If you want to photograph stationary scenes at night – such as cityscapes from an apartment window – a night mode can make a huge difference. Portrait mode can add depth of field effects, while panorama mode is perfect for those wide scenic shots.
These additional modes and features can take your photography to the next level, but not every smartphone boasts every feature. Make sure that the device you pick gives you everything you need to capture the shots you want to create.
Determining your budget is crucial, as smartphones can vary wildly in price. You’ll want to think about a range that you’re willing to spend, then look for the best value within that range. And don’t just think about the cost of the phone itself. Consider the total cost, including potential accessories, image-editing app subscriptions, and so on.
If you don’t have the budget to purchase a shiny new model, older models with strong camera features are definitely worth considering. It’s all about finding the right balance between what you want and what you can afford!
Smartphone photography accessories: Are they necessary?
If you’re just getting started with smartphone photography, it’s fine to shoot with only your smartphone. However, once you become more familiar with your phone camera, and especially if you want to specialize in certain photographic genres, you may want to consider purchasing an accessory or two.
Now, I’m not saying you should rush out and buy every gizmo and gadget on the market. Far from it. Instead, start by understanding your interests. Are you into sprawling landscapes or close-up flower photos? Depending on your answer, your smartphone setup should look quite different.
As you grow more confident and your skills start to increase, you can begin to build your kit. As you do, here are a few items worth considering:
Stability is key in photography, especially for long-exposure shots, and that’s where a tripod comes in handy. If you’re shooting a scene and you want to show off movement – like a stream running through a valley – a tripod will keep your smartphone camera motionless as it records a photo for several seconds.
Additionally, a tripod allows for consistent framing when capturing several shots that you hope to blend together; this is key if you want to create stunning time-lapses.
Look for portable and adjustable options. Some tripods even come with Bluetooth remotes, allowing you to take photos from a distance without touching your phone. You can simply mount your smartphone on the tripod, step back, and use the remote to capture the perfect moment without worrying about camera shake.
Perhaps you’re looking to capture ultra-wide landscapes, detailed macro images, or photos of skittish subjects? If that’s the case, clip-on lenses can help you out by enhancing your smartphone’s capabilities. They come in various types, including wide-angle, fisheye, macro, and telephoto, and they can certainly give you some extra focal length flexibility when shooting.
Before buying a clip-on lens, however, ensure compatibility with your smartphone model. Additionally, the quality varies wildly from lens to lens – this is something that I have plenty of experience with! – so it’s wise to read reviews and maybe even test out a few options before investing.
While professional photographers often love to use studio lighting, even serious iPhone and Android photographers tend to shy away from most forms of artificial light. It cuts down on portability, and it generally doesn’t look that great.
That said, portable lighting solutions are sometimes useful for smartphone portrait and smartphone product photography; in particular, they can significantly improve lighting for indoor or low-light shots.
If you need an artificial light boost, consider LED ring lights or small portable LED panels. Some even come with adjustable color temperature for creative control. These tools can help you manage shadows and highlights in a way that helps you craft the mood you want to create, and they’re designed to be ultra-lightweight and compact.
15 tips to level up your smartphone photos
Now let’s take a look at the tips, tricks, and techniques you can use to capture beautiful photos using your smartphone, starting with:
1. Clean your lens
This tip is extremely basic, but you will be amazed by the dirt and grime that accumulate on your smartphone lens. (When I reach for my phone, I often find lots of smudges and dirt caused by my kids, my pockets, the environment, and more.)
So do yourself a favor and get in the habit of quickly wiping your phone lens before beginning a photoshoot. It’ll make your photos look so much sharper!
Note that you’ll want to pay especially close attention to your smartphone camera lens during bad weather; if you’re photographing in the rain, for instance, a single drop of water can turn the whole shot blurry. Make sure you wipe that lens clean at least every few minutes!
2. Tap the screen to set focus
Typically, when you point your smartphone at a subject, the camera will guess what you want to photograph. For instance, if it recognizes faces, it’ll focus on the faces; if it recognizes a person, it’ll focus on the person.
This method of autofocusing can work well, especially if you’re photographing a clear scene with an obvious main subject. But when the scene is more complex – you’re photographing a bird surrounded by trees, for example – your smartphone may get the focusing wrong, and the shot will turn out blurry.
So what do you do?
Instead of letting your smartphone’s algorithms determine your point of focus, simply tap on your subject, and then – voila! – you’ll get a sharp result.
Note: If you want extremely fine control over your smartphone’s focusing – such as when you’re doing close-up photography – there are a variety of camera apps that allow you to focus manually so that you can rack the plane of focus back and forth until you get the results you’re after!
3. Don’t use flash
Your smartphone camera has a flash, but it really, really sucks! Sorry – there simply isn’t a way to sugarcoat it: The flash on your phone camera is not flattering for photos, whether you’re shooting in the daytime, late at night, landscapes, flowers, or portraits.
So whenever you’re shooting, keep that flash off. Instead, use natural light for great results. For instance, shoot in the early morning or the late evening to get beautiful golden lighting, or work on cloudy days for soft, evenly lit images.
And if you desperately need extra light, invest in lighting accessories designed for smartphones, such as an LED ring light.
4. Discreetly take photos by pressing the volume buttons
Sometimes, the perfect shot requires a touch of subtlety – such as when you notice a beautiful scene while out walking, or if you’re watching your kids do something especially cute. In such instances, using the volume button to take photos is a great way to capture the image without disturbing the subjects or making them feel self-conscious.
How does this work? Some smartphones automatically set the volume buttons as an alternative shutter control, while others don’t default to this option but do let you set it up on your own (this process is simple and usually involves togging an item in the camera settings). Then, with your smartphone set, you can discreetly raise your camera and nudge a volume button upward or downward.
Remember, the key here is to use this technique with care and ethics. The goal isn’t to make your subjects feel uncomfortable!
5. Manually set the image brightness
Did you know that you can set image brightness (i.e., image exposure) manually?
It’s true, and you can use this function to control the level of detail that will appear in the final photo.
The details depend on your specific smartphone model, but try tapping on the screen, then look for some sort of exposure symbol (such as a sun). Swipe up (or drag the corresponding slider) to brighten the exposure, and swipe down (or drag the corresponding slider) to darken it.
Note that the general goal is to keep as much detail as possible in the final image. However, you can also deliberately brighten or darken an image for creative effect, like this:
6. Make sure your smartphone’s HDR function is on
HDR is a handy feature found in most smartphones today, and you might be surprised to learn how much it can enhance your photos. It stands for high dynamic range, and its primary purpose is to bring out the details in the shadows and highlights. It works by taking multiple shots at different exposures and then merging them together to create a balanced image.
Most modern phones offer some sort of HDR option, which can often be toggled on and off in your phone’s settings. (It’s usually tucked away in the camera app settings.)
What’s important is that you make sure HDR is active when you’re photographing scenes with significant contrast between bright and dark areas. It’s especially useful for landscapes where the sky is bright but the land is shrouded in shadow, or for subjects that are lit from behind. As long as it’s enabled, HDR will work its magic to even out those contrasts and make the image look more like how your eyes see it.
On the other hand, there are times when you might want to turn HDR off, such as when you’re aiming for a more dramatic or moody effect. It’s good to know how to control the feature so you can make a choice that fits your creative vision.
7. Compose your photos creatively
Composition refers to the arrangement of elements in the frame. If you want to capture stunning photos, you must carefully position people and objects in a pleasing way.
A few quick pieces of advice:
- Avoid placing your subject smack-dab in the center of the frame
- Symmetry often looks good
- Try to include a natural frame around your subject, like a window, a doorway, or an arch
If you want especially beautiful compositions, I’d recommend using the rule of thirds, which encourages you to position key elements a third of the way into the image. See how the chairs are positioned around the bottom-third portion of the frame:
Note that you don’t have to use the rule of thirds – it’s not really a rule, just a guideline – but it helps create compositions that are well-balanced and dynamic at the same time.
8. Try the rule of odds
Another tip for great smartphone composition is the rule of odds, which encourages you to group your subjects in odd-numbered collections.
(For some reason, odd-numbered collections just tend to look good!)
So if you were photographing a group of people, you’d want to include three, five, or seven people in a cluster – not two or four. And if you were photographing a group of forks, you’d want to include three, five, seven, or nine. Make sense?
As with the rule of thirds, the rule of odds isn’t actually a rule. It’s a suggestion – but a good one, so I do recommend you follow it whenever possible!
9. Test out your smartphone’s photography modes
Your smartphone likely comes with several photography modes, each offering a different way to create your images.
Portrait mode, for instance, will blur the background and put focus on the subject. This is great for individual or couple photos and can give a professional touch, similar to what you could achieve with a high-end camera.
Night mode is another powerful feature. If you’ve ever tried to take a photo in low light, you know how difficult it can be, but Night mode takes several images and blends them together for a clear and bright shot.
And then there’s Panorama. Want to capture a breathtaking landscape? Panorama mode lets you take a series of photos and stitch them together into one wide image.
You don’t need to be a technical whiz to use these modes. Just find them in your camera app, select the one that fits your scene, and shoot. Over time, you’ll get a feel for when to use each mode, but experimenting is the best way to learn!
So don’t hesitate to try these modes and see what works best for you. The more you play with them, the more you’ll understand what they can do. That’s the first step in becoming a more skilled and confident smartphone photographer.
10. Straighten the horizon
A common beginner smartphone photography mistake is a crooked horizon. After all, it’s so easy to accidentally tilt your phone when shooting!
Unfortunately, crooked horizons are a major problem, and unless you know how to handle them (either in the field or in post-processing), you’ll be stuck with a set of bad photos.
Fortunately, dealing with crooked horizons isn’t difficult. Simply take a moment to turn on your camera grid; this will display a set of lines across the screen, which you can then use to level your horizons in the field.
You can also handle crooked horizons in post-processing. Most editing apps include some sort of straightening option, though you will lose pixels in the process, so it’s always best to get it right in the field!
11. Use leading lines
Leading lines are lines that lead the viewer into the frame and draw attention to the main subject. And these lines, if used correctly, are insanely powerful.
When you’re shooting with your smartphone, look around for roads, buildings, or even furniture that can help lead the eye to the subject. Technically, a leading line can be pretty much anything, from outstretched arms and tree branches to road signs and buildings, so even if you can’t see any obvious lines, I encourage you to keep looking!
Once you find a leading line, adjust your position so that it points to the main subject. Your composition will instantly improve! Here, I used the row of chairs to direct the viewer toward the building in the background:
12. Photograph in natural light
Earlier in the article, I mentioned the value of natural light, but it’s so important that it deserves its own section. You see, there is something so pure and clean about photographing in natural light. It looks great, it produces beautiful photos, and it’s always available.
I love morning and evening light because of its golden hues and soft, flattering effect. Overcast light is nice, too. And even high-contrast light produced by the harsh sun can look amazing (especially in black and white).
If you shoot in heavy shade or at night, you can still use natural light, but you’ll need to use a tripod to prevent image blur. (Fortunately, there are plenty of high-quality yet relatively cheap smartphone tripods to choose from!)
This next image, of a foggy morning out on Lake Michigan, shows the beauty of soft natural light:
13. Try not to zoom
Unless your smartphone offers a proper telephoto camera, I recommend you do as little zooming as possible.
You see, most zoom functions use digital zoom, which simply crops the image to magnify the subject. In other words, it doesn’t actually get you closer to the subject; instead, it just removes pixels. Recently, smartphone manufacturers have developed algorithms that allow for slightly better results when zooming digitally, but it’s still always better to get close to your subjects instead of relying on your device’s digital zoom capabilities.
If you own a smartphone with a zoom capability, and you’re not sure whether the images are simply cropped or whether the device boasts a genuine telephoto lens, go ahead and read the specifications sheet (you can find this on the manufacturer’s website). In general, this should clear things up, and you can determine the best approach for photographing distant subjects.
14. Consider using a sophisticated camera app
I know that you might be comfortable with the built-in camera app on your smartphone. But as you grow in your photography skills, you’ll find that more sophisticated camera apps can provide you with greater control and creativity.
Many advanced camera apps offer manual controls. Imagine being able to adjust the shutter speed, ISO, and white balance, just like professional photographers do with their DSLRs. And as I mentioned in a previous tip, some of these apps let you focus manually to pinpoint exactly where you want the sharpest details in your image.
Some apps also allow for a more artistic shooting process. They’ll apply filters to your camera feed in advance so you can see the world in high-contrast black and white, intense grunge, monochromatic blue, and much more. If you’re in a creative rut, trying such an app can certainly help you out.
Note that camera apps like Adobe Lightroom Mobile and ProCam offer significant manual capabilities and are generally user-friendly, so don’t be afraid to experiment with them and see what you think.
15. Process your images using an editing app
The work doesn’t stop once you’ve captured a nice photo – because with a little post-processing, you can turn a good image into a great one. And the best part? You don’t need to be a Photoshop wizard to do it. Most smartphones come with a range of easy-to-use editing apps that can help you enhance your pictures.
I’d recommend starting with the basics: Crop your photo to improve the composition, then adjust brightness and contrast to make the image pop. You might also tweak the white balance or add a bit of sharpening. Don’t be afraid to play around with these settings. Often, a little tweak here and there can make a world of difference.
Many of these apps also offer filters and presets. These are ready-made settings that apply a particular look to your image with just a single tap. They can be a fun way to explore different styles, but be sure to use them judiciously. Sometimes, less is more.
If you want to dive a little deeper, some apps allow more advanced editing like layering and blending. You might find these options a bit more challenging if you’re new to editing, but don’t be discouraged. There are plenty of tutorials online that can guide you through the process.
What’s vital here is to maintain the quality of your image during editing. If the app doesn’t offer non-destructive processing, always work on a copy of the photo rather than the original file, and be cautious not to over-edit. Subtlety often works best.
Editing isn’t about changing what you captured; it’s about enhancing it. Think of it as the final touch that brings your photo to life. And most importantly, have fun with it! Experimenting with different techniques can be an enjoyable and rewarding part of the photographic process.
How to take amazing smartphone photos: final words
With a bit of practice, you can capture amazing smartphone photos of landscapes, people, and so much more – even if you’re an absolute beginner.
Keep in mind that photographing with a smartphone should be simple. At the same time, an iPhone or Android camera is a genuinely powerful tool to explore the world around you, capture memories, and express your artistic vision. There’s no right or wrong approach, so feel free to experiment and find what works best for you.
I encourage you to pick up your phone and start exploring the possibilities. You might be surprised at what you can create. And remember, the best camera is the one you have with you!
Now over to you:
What kind of smartphone photos do you plan to take? Which of these tips will you use first? Share your thoughts in the comments below!